Loose sand is hissing across the beach in 25 mph winds as my shaggy, blond kiteboarding instructor squints up at the 65-square-foot kite that he is inching upwind -- barely -- by hanging his entire weight off its steering bar.
"Man, this thing's really juiced!" says Yani, arms extended like a kid on a jungle gym. Then he glances sideways at me. "Just a cautionary note."
Note taken. I am into the first hour of a kiteboarding lesson on Sullivans Island, a barrier island just east of Charleston, S.C. It is the windiest day in two weeks, and I have begun to understand that an enormous kite can not only rocket you across the water on a board -- that's kiteboarding -- but can also "chunk you like a rock," as Yani's boss had put it.
Such activities are hard for most people to learn, but in me, Yani has a unique challenge: an out-of-shape graduate student who has never surfed, who had never flown anything more than a kiddie kite until two days earlier and who -- let's be honest -- is nursing a bit of a hangover.
The night before, my reasoning had seemed flawless:
My lesson would not begin until late afternoon, leaving plenty of time to recover from a night out.
There were five bars. There were more beers. Thirteen hours later, it is safe to say that I am not in peak physical condition. Nonetheless, I am dutifully following Yani into the surf, pretending that I am not nervous when the strength of the wind prompts him to exclaim, simply, "Good Lord!"
Later, I told Yani that I interpreted this last statement as a prayer. "I'm glad you caught that," he said, grinning. "It was sort of a prayer."
As a tourist destination, Charleston's main selling point is its antebellum ambiance: gaslights on old storefronts, horse-and-carriage tours clomping past churches and graveyards, and enormous mansions catching the sea breeze off Charleston Harbor.
The city does indeed have all those things. But it also has beaches, wind and a bevy of surprisingly hip bars and clubs patronized by college students, yuppies, artists and surf rats. In short, you can come to Charleston to sightsee and eat fine food, or you can come to Charleston to play.
I had the latter option in mind during a recent visit, aiming to spend my days outdoors and my nights reacquainting myself with the night spots of the city where I once lived. The nightlife I knew I could handle. The rest I wasn't so sure about.
As befits a city surrounded by ocean, marshes and swamps, the best outdoor activities in Charleston involve water. I spent my first days there in a kayak, paddling the intracoastal waterway to a barrier island and navigating a blackwater stream crisscrossed by alligators. When I declined friends' subsequent offers to take me surfing and sailing, it wasn't because I didn't know how to do either -- though that was true -- but rather because I'd fixated on something newer and flashier: kiteboarding.
Also known as kitesurfing, the sport bewitches. In two Charleston area shops, I watched videos of kiteboarders ripping across the surf, jumping 30 or 40 feet above the water and setting down as smoothly as one-man pontoon boats.
Although kiteboarding's American and European forefathers pioneered the sport in the 1980s, its recent explosive growth dates to the late '90s. It caught on in Charleston soon thereafter, taking advantage of what locals call the best conditions on the East Coast after Cape Hatteras, N.C.
The sport is risky. Dan Floyd, manager of the local water-sports shop Half-Moon Outfitters, told me his kite's safety system once failed during a trip to Mexico, sending him over a small cliff and dragging him across the rocks below. He also said strong winds can launch kiteboarders 50 to 70 feet into the air -- a thrill that can turn deadly without proper instruction.
For beginners, in fact, lessons are really only the second step. First, the staff at Half-Moon recommended that I learn to fly a trainer kite.
A trainer kite is what it sounds like: a smaller kite that handles like the big ones. It's all about learning to steer. On both large and small models, this involves manipulating a bar that resembles the end of a water-ski tow rope.
It is not as easy as it sounds. On a quiet beach on Sullivans Island, my friend Ben repeatedly released my new Wasp One trainer kite, which I repeatedly nose-dived into the sand.
"I hope this thing has a warranty," Ben cracked.
I couldn't believe he was only worried about the kite.
As with Charleston's other water sports, it's probably not wise to kiteboard at night. But that's no excuse to sleep.
The city is packed with bars and clubs, and an army of college students and restaurant workers ensures that someplace is hopping every night. If you stay downtown, many of the best nightspots will be within walking distance of your bed.
Jim Marshall, managing editor of a local entertainment guide called Charleston BarFly, told me the nightlife was a mix of three scenes -- the young professional scene, the art scene and the college scene (the College of Charleston and the Citadel, among other schools). I might add the surfer/beach bum scene, but the general idea is that Charleston has a bar for almost everyone.
Want music? Walk a half-mile stretch of King Street on a weekend night and you'll hear snatches of at least seven or eight live bands. One Friday, I started out listening to a cover band on the strip's north end. A five-minute walk later, I was swaying to infectious reggae.
This was not my first brush with the Caribbean in Charleston. The Thursday I arrived, I visited the now-defunct place called Zanzibar for Latin dance night. Despite being 6 foot 3 and as graceful as a wildebeest, I persuaded several kind, forgiving women to dance with me before last call.
Although I find Charleston a better city for drinking than dancing, it offers several other options for getting close and sweaty. The most popular is probably City Bar, a large bump-and-grind spot with a bartender in a hot tub and an enormous aquarium at the edge of the dance floor. I prefer Trio Club, where live bands play everything from Latin music to Motown to 1970s dance tunes -- all near an outdoor patio where you can cool down between sets.
Of course, no amount of effort or alcohol can alter the fact that dancing (read: rhythm) is not in my blood. But I do have a great deal of Irish ancestry.
For several nights, I bellied up to just about every decent bar I could find. One afternoon, I sipped beer and watched dolphins from the two-level deck at Red's Ice House, along Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, just across the Cooper River from Charleston. Another night, I hit the King Street Grille, whose horde of flat-screen TVs would lead me to call it a sports bar if the sleek, narrow, two-tier layout didn't transform it into more of a club.
Charleston's best bars share a common denominator: They feel slightly hidden, offering more than what first meets the eye. The Blind Tiger Pub's unassuming Broad Street storefront, for example, gives no hint that its smallish indoor area opens into a large, secluded courtyard lined with brick walls and decorated with a koi pond. When the weather's nice, there's no better place in Charleston.
Still, the atmosphere prize has to go to Charlie's Little Bar, in a second-floor room at the back of the Saracen Restaurant on tourist-packed East Bay Street.
If you can find the bar's entrance (off a parking lot, through a gate, up some stairs), entering Charlie's will make you feel cooler than, in all likelihood, you actually are. With small candles, low tables and a view onto the dining area below, Charlie's exudes an intimate, shadowy vibe that renders everything slightly mysterious.
"Are you ready to hurt yourself now?" Ben sniggered as I followed Yani up the beach. Because I had eventually mastered my trainer kite, Yani had moved quickly through the safety and self-rescue portions of the lesson. Moments earlier, I'd also completed the "body drag," a sinister-sounding exercise in which the kite sent me skimming along the ocean on my thighs.
Now it was time to strap on a board.
I clambered into the water, the kite clipped to my harness like an umbilical cord, and struggled to slip my feet into the bindings without losing control of the kite. This accomplished, I dived the kite through the wind, immediately feeling a surge of energy that pulled me onto my feet and then, seconds later, sent me torpedoing headfirst through the water. On other attempts, I simply stalled and sank.
Eventually, Yani decided to bump me up to a bigger kite for more propulsion. The added power made me nervous; my first run down the beach, I crashed the new kite repeatedly.
Exhausted and tired of swallowing salt water, I walked back up the beach for a last run.
"This is it," Yani yelled.
I waded into the water. I floundered with the board. When I'd finally collected myself, I again nose-dived the kite through the downwind slice of sky where the wind is strongest.
Suddenly I was on my feet. I was flying! I skimmed across the water, propelled by the wind, trying desperately to steer the kite in a way that provided power without yanking me in the wrong direction.
This effort eventually failed. I made a wrong move, caught the edge of my board and submarined for a couple of disorienting seconds. I then lost control of the kite, which whipsawed across the sky and sent me zigzagging through the ocean behind it. Exhausted, I let go of the bar and allowed the kite to collapse.
Then I saw Yani.
He was kiteboarding upwind from me, a rooster tail arcing through the air behind him, back nearly on the water, blond hair gleaming in the sun. When he reversed directions, he slingshot 15 or 20 feet in the air, twisting, turning and -- one time -- kicking off the board and hanging upside down. I made whimpering noises of awe.
After Yani landed a final jump on the beach -- as if this sort of thing were easy and natural -- I offered to buy him a beer. But he had other priorities. As soon as the gear was stowed, he began running back toward the water. He had maybe an hour of daylight left, and he was going to kiteboard home.
Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel about Peru.